How previous crises shaped the way we work – and will the coronavirus start a remote work revolution?

eXo Platform Blog

With the worldwide spread of the coronavirus, more and more countries have taken drastic measures to contain the disease and limit its spread. China, Italy and Spain were among a host of countries that went on full or partial lockdown, allowing only a handful of businesses to operate.

These measures meant that businesses needed to adapt and embrace work-from-home strategies to serve their clients and, more importantly, keep their employees safe.

In this blog post, we will discuss how the coronavirus may start a remote work revolution. To accurately predict the long-term impact of the coronavirus, let’s start by examining the history of remote working, how it was part of the solution for previous crises and how some companies responded at the outset.

A brief history of remote working

  • Remote working is not a new concept

Working from home is by no means a new trend. In fact, throughout history and up to the industrial revolution, everyone worked from home. From carpenters and blacksmiths to shop owners and doctors, working and providing goods and services from home was the norm. There were no such things as factories and corporate offices, and commuting to work was rare.

  • The industrial revolution

But this began to change with the advent of the industrial revolution. This period was characterized by a growing number of factories utilizing advanced technologies and machinery that needed to be set up and maintained by on-site employees. Additionally, family- and home-based businesses could not compete, so workers had no choice but to follow suit.

  • The rise of corporate offices and the 1970s energy crisis

The introduction of corporate offices and the emergence of the services sector at the beginning and middle of the twentieth century further enhanced the need for employees to be at the office on eight-hour shifts in most cases. The technologies at the time were limited and did not allow employees to telecommunicate and perform their jobs from home. Furthermore, the economic boom post WWII meant that commuting was made easy with affordable cars and public transport. This proved to be a two-edged sword in the long run. As employees became heavily reliant on means of transport to commute from the suburbs to the city, any shortage of energy meant high prices and difficulty in getting from one place to another. That’s exactly what happened during the oil crisis in the early 1970s, where members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries enforced an oil embargo on Western countries. The economic impact was immediate as oil prices almost quadrupled overnight. This led researchers to find new ways to restructure the economy and reduce the dependence on oil.

The first attempt to address the issues of transportation post crisis was a book by Jack Nilles entitled The Telecommunications-Transportation Tradeoff. Released in the wake of the crisis, the book proposed the idea of introducing telecommuting to tackle traffic issues change the perception of the office. Since the internet had not yet been invented, telecommuting in this book was quite different to what it is today. Instead of working from homes, companies would use a number of offices spread across different locations. Employees who did not need to be present at the headquarters would work in the nearest location. Although Nilles’ ideas were limited by the technologies available at that time, they laid the foundation for the concept of telecommuting and working from remote locations. Nilles and his co-authors predicted a bright future for such initiatives by stating that new telecommunications technologies would act as the catalyst for change.

“New technologies have the potential for acting as catalysts that could radically change the structure of American society in much the same way that the automobile acted as a catalyst on our way of life during the first half of this century.” Jack Nilles

  • The growing interest in remote working in the 1980s

Telecommuting and work-from-home strategies continued to emerge long after the 1973 oil crisis and 1979 energy crisis had ended. This was mainly due to the growing interest of big corporations like IBM in experimenting with flexible hours and work-from-home initiatives.

The tech giant was able to progressively adopt a remote work strategy that was initiated back in 1983. The results were quite spectacular as, by 2009, nearly 40 per cent of IBM’s workforce worked from remote locations. IBM was also able to reduce costs associated with buying or renting and maintaining an office space.

  • The 2008 financial crisis

Another crisis that required a deep restructuring of the way we worked was the financial crisis of 2008.  Businesses big and small leaned towards both freelance gigs and remote work. The reasoning behind both initiatives was to balance the books and cut costs, while maintaining regular levels of productivity. The technologies available in the late 2000s – such as enterprise software, mobile devices, affordable laptops and, of course, the internet – facilitated the implementation of such strategies.

Furthermore, government agencies worked on new laws to favour remote work. In 2010, the US government introduced the Telework Enhancement Act, which encouraged agencies to adopt and develop work-from-home plans in order to provide employees with secure and effective work environments and improve their work–life balance.

  • Advancements in technology and the broad expansion of remote working

During the decade following the financial crisis, more companies – especially from the tech world such as Atlassian, GitHub and Basecamp – willingly adopted remote work strategies. In some businesses, like Atlassian, up to 70 per cent of the workforce works remotely from various locations.

Moreover, some companies went the distance and based their entire operation on remote teams, as in the case of Automattic – WordPress’ parent company. This company made working in the office optional and had to shut their San Francisco office as so few employees showed up to work, preferring other locations like coffee shops, co-working spaces and of course their homes. In an interview with Inc., Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, stated that the reasons behind the strategy were to attract and retain the best talents.

“We now have folks in just over 40 countries. This has been amazing for the company in that we can attract and retain the best talent without them having to be in New York or San Francisco or one of the traditional tech centres.

So far, this model has worked extraordinarily well, and we plan to continue it.” Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic

The surge and success of remote work strategies is a direct consequence of advancements in enterprise software solutions and innovation in telecommunications and wireless technologies such as 3G and 4G networks.

How have companies and governments reacted to the coronavirus

With millions of people worldwide forced to stay at home, it has become crucial for businesses and governmental agencies to let their employees work from home. Big corporations such as Facebook, Google and Amazon were ready as they already had policies and plans in place to allow some of their employee to work remotely. This in turn made further development of these strategies to include more employees easier, and response faster and more efficient.

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, have acted decisively by advising employees in North America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa to work remotely until 10 April at the earliest. However, offices in Asia – apart from China, whose offices shut completely at the end of January – are continuing to explore the possibility of deploying similar measures. Google is also currently working on a plan to compensate baristas and restaurant staff whose working hours have been reduced by the confinement.

Additionally, the US government has provided new guidelines on remote working, with the White House urging its agencies to deploy flexible measures for workers in the district of Colombia.

Big tech companies have responded relatively well to the crisis, mainly on account of the multitude of software tools they have at their disposal – and their flexible and progressive policies in particular.

But what about average companies who did not have such plans in place?

Such companies have common misconceptions about remote working that have so far made them reluctant to introduce it. Remote working is often perceived as unproductive (despite several studies that have proven otherwise) and as a special treatment and privilege that is only granted to certain individuals, rather than the entire workforce. These misconceptions, coupled with strong ties to offices, have made employees wary of even asking to work from home since doing so often carries negative career consequences, e.g. infrequent promotions, limited salary growth.

The rapid spread of the virus has given these companies no choice but to comply with government decisions and shut down their offices. The failure to deploy flexible policies has come back to haunt some companies as they have neither the experience nor the necessary tools to cope with such a crisis. The rush to get a solution in place has led to a massive demand for communications apps such as Zoom, which witnessed a spike in the number of downloads and became the most downloaded app on the iStore in recent weeks. Microsoft Teams is another tool that has been massively sought after to facilitate meetings. In China, meetings held on Teams have increased by a staggering 500 per cent since the end of January, while in Europe, the app crashed for several hours on March 16th as thousands logged in to start their workday.

Will the coronavirus result in a remote work revolution?

With this critical situation, even the most sceptical of companies have worked on short-term plans to maintain productivity and prevent severe financial losses. Demand for enterprise software like digital workplace solutions, chat applications and productivity tools has never been greater. However, to figure out whether remote working will continue in the long term really depends on four main questions: How much time would we spend working from home? Will companies be able to survive by relying on these strategies? And especially … what will companies learn, and how will employees adapt to going back to their offices, after prolonged periods of working from home?

The first question is a bit tricky to answer since we don’t have an exact date as to when the social distancing and quarantine will truly end, with countries progressively pushing the dates further and further.  This might give management teams the time to test and experiment with remote working tools, best practices and tips and find out whether they work properly and whether they lead to similar, or perhaps even improved, business performance. Two outcomes are expected after the crisis hopefully ends. Some companies who will doubtless continue with the same HR strategies they had utilized previously, while others (especially those that handled the situation successfully) may be more open to the idea of introducing flexible HR policies. The latter will be making the right choice as countess studies have proven that full-time or partial remote working results in an engaged workforce and a high level of job satisfaction. According to the State of the American Workplace report, conducted by Gallup, working remotely for a few days a week can boost engagement, with employees who worked 60 to 80 per cent from home feeling more engaged. Furthermore, remote working can lead to higher levels of productivity – at least according to a Flexjobs survey, which found that 65 per cent of respondents felt more productive since there were no distractions and less stress linked to daily commuting.

And the future of remote working doesn’t only relate to management decisions – it also lies at the hand of the workforce. Employees – especially millennials and Gen Z, who will make up the majority of the future workplace – will progressively lean towards the most innovative and flexible companies. This may in turn change the rules of recruitment and the battleground of the war for talents, especially if the most talented and sought-after professionals choose to work remotely, which they are likely to since they have already tended to favour such initiatives. According to the State of Remote Work, 99 per cent of respondents were in favour of working remotely at least some of the time, with a further 95 per cent expressing their willingness to encourage their peers to do the same.

So will the coronavirus be the start of a remote working revolution? The answer is probably yes since the virus might just end up acting as a hard reality check that will make businesses review their strategies and anticipate future crises. Both the cutting-edge enterprise technologies and the expectations of new generations can contribute to revolutionizing the way we work.

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Product Marketing Specialist

I am a product marketing specialist at eXo. My role is to assist marketing and sales teams in their operations and present our digital workplace solution to the world. I mainly blog about the latest tech trends, digital transformation, internal communication and how to navigate through eXo Platform.

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